An infectiously amused, if ultimately slight, portrait of irrepressible wanderlust and child-like curiosity, Barefoot to Timbuktu follows the illustrious exploits of Swiss artist and impromptu global activist Ernst Aebi through his lucrative days in the 1960s Soho art gallery scene to his subsequent adventures abroad. Aebi’s desultory confidence reeks of documentary pay dirt (his fervently tinker-tailor-soldier-sailor attitude compels him to cross oceans, deserts, and jungles in search of cultural thrills with little more than a wiry forest of dark facial hair atop a manic, domineering grin to sustain him), and after a certain point the film succumbs to Sinbadist monotony: Crazy story after crazy story unfolds from multiple perspectives—that of Aebi himself, his two wives, and his comparatively subdued children—with the only goal in sight communicating Aebi’s lust for life, and how easily it can deteriorate into madness.
At the heart of the film lies Araouane, a defunct Saharan oasis Aebi toiled to revive for years on little more than a whim, and it’s here that director Martina Egi manages to tease out the exasperating megalomania in her subject. We detect a disturbing hint of White Man’s burden zest in archival footage of Aebi ruthlessly lecturing the black slaves he was determined to “aid” in Africa, and discussions with his progeny—one of whom circumnavigated the globe in a sailboat at 18, another of whom describes his relationship with his father as “better than most” because at least “they still talk to each other”—subtly reveal the darker side of giddy, irresponsible living.
But Egi sadly stops short before nailing her implied bull’s eye (namely, that Aebi’s brash but entertaining brand of exploration belongs, however distantly, to a decidedly Western, chauvinistic, conquistador-like tradition), deciding instead to dull her subject’s borderline offensive, masculine strength with location porn. (We halt too often to appreciate the sun setting blood red through a sandy heat refraction, or the alpine glow rising above a Swiss highway.) This makes Barefoot to Timbuktu a pleasant travelogue, but one can’t help but feel that a faster-paced, impressionistic style might have provided more cutting insight into Aebi’s bull-headed élan.